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TELEVISION REVIEW

This 'Sucker' is a one-hit wonder

Someone once said, ''There are no shoulds."

Wrong.

''Sucker Free City" should be a two-hour pilot for a new Showtime series. Directed by Spike Lee and written by Alex Tse, it should be the opening chapter in what goes on to be the identity-starved pay channel's richest show. It should be Showtime's first serious bid to enter the HBO ring, with a dense urban drama not terribly unlike ''The Wire."

But because of TV industry twists that probably come down to ego, money, or some form of both, ''Sucker Free City" is now a one-off movie that premieres tonight at 8.

And what a shame that is. This ambitious piece of work about San Francisco gangs is much too layered and sprawling to be set up and resolved in two hours flat. The story falls together gradually, as the narrative skips among three sets of characters in three different worlds -- a white family driven out of the funky Mission by gentrification, a black gang in the Hunters Point slum, and members of the Chinese mafia in Chinatown. By the time the action begins in earnest, and essential connections have been made, the credits drop.

What gives ''Sucker Free City" its HBO-ish charge is its resistance to the shorthand that defines the way the networks treat black and Asian characters. The people Lee and Tse have created don't articulate for mainstream audiences; their languages are rough dialects, with expletives and mistakes that form a sort of poetry. The Hunters Point gang, called V-Dub, is led by Sleepy (Darris Love) and second-in-command Leon (Malieek Straughter), who is as unpredictable, violent, and hotheaded as Joe Pesci in ''GoodFellas." V-Dub is a drug-dealing gang, but one member, K-Luv (Anthony Mackie), is tired of the casualties of that life. Ultimately, ''Sucker Free City" is about K-Luv's hunger for something better.

The white family, the Wades, moves from the Mission to Hunters Point, where they are harassed and robbed by V-Dub members. Nineteen-year-old son Nick (Ben Crowley) listens to Eminem and affects a street talk that disappears during his 9-to-5 corporate job. But he's the target of ridicule for the gang, as are Nick's parents, Anderson and Cleo (John Savage and Kathy Baker), 1960s liberals who only want to make peace with their hostile new neighbors. In one of the movie's emblematic moments, Anderson tries to endear himself to K-Luv by comparing him to Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale; K-Luv is mystified.

While this black-white confrontation heats up, we also follow the activities of a Chinese teenager named Lincoln (Ken Leung) who collects money for the mob while he's sneaking around with the boss's daughter, Angela (T.V. Carpio). Like K-Luv, Lincoln is privately dealing with mixed feelings about his life choices. Ultimately, he and his buddies get involved with V-Dub, in ways I won't go into here, except to say that they should be the start, and not the culmination, of the story.

Lee films the San Francisco fringe areas in saturated hues that make them seem vivid but sadly decaying. And that's fitting: The movie is about the economic demoralization of these neighborhoods, and how that affects their young people, whose struggle for survival too often takes them down the wrong road. It has the same sociological urgency of Lee's ''Clockers," but also that movie's sensitivity to character -- men in particular. Most of the guys in ''Sucker Free City" aren't willing to show anything more than anger and cool; but Lee lets us see inside them, enabling us to glimpse their more complicated emotions. The uniformly strong performances help, too, with Mackie standing out as K-Luv. He should be the next new TV star.

Really, he should.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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